Jack Benny: The Radio Show ~ Introduction To Old-Time Radio ~
Mister Radio. Original 'King Of All Media'. The world's oldest 39-year-old. Possibly the person most associated with the golden age of radio is Jack Benny.
Jack Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky in 1894, grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, the town he made famous in countless routines. At age six he began studying the violin, and in 1911, at age 17, Benny began his career playing the violin on the vaudeville stage. His violin would serve him well throughout his career, becoming one of the most iconic props in comedy.
After more than two decades in vaudeville that included several name changes, refinements to both his act and character, a stint in the US Navy during WWI, and marriage to Sadie Marks (better known as Mary Livingstone), Benjamin Kubelsky settled on the name and persona of Jack Benny, and decided that the time was right to move into the new medium of radio.
In 1932, Benny made his first brief appearances on radio. Proving to be a natural personality for the new medium, at age 38 he was awarded his own show on the NBC Blue Network. Jack Benny would celebrate his 39th birthday on the air and, because according to Jack "there's nothing funny about forty", would go on to celebrate his 39th birthday 41 more times throughout his life.
'The Jack Benny Show' was actually many different shows, each named for its respective sponsor. At various times, Benny's radio program was known as The Canada Dry Program, The Chevrolet Program, The General Tire Revue, The Jell-O Program, The Grape Nuts Flakes Program, and The Lucky Strike Program. Despite the name changes, the show and cast went largely unchanged throughout the years. The many forms of The Jack Benny Show would remain on radio for more than two decades.
The cast was led, of course, by Jack Benny as the well-known everyman with many comic foibles, including gently exaggerated vanity, pettiness, self-importance, and the ability to squeeze more out of a penny than any man alive. Appearing with Benny in these programs were Eddie Anderson as his valet 'Rochester', who knows him better than anyone and regularly plays on Jack's vanity; Mary Livingstone, his wise-cracking secretary and provider of a uniquely female perspective on Jack's peculiarities (and his real-life wife for 47 years); Dennis Day, the naive and sheltered singer; Phil Harris, hard-drinking bandleader and hipster son of the south; Don Wilson, rotund announcer and the target of many of Jack's barbs; and voice actor extraordinaire Mel Blanc as just about every character imaginable, including Polly the Parrot and Benny's sputtering Maxwell automobile.
Jack Benny's 1947 Cast: L to R: Sara Berner, Artie Auerbach, Frank Nelson, Mel Blanc, Dennis Day, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Don Wilson, and Bea Benaderet
Like many of the major stars of this era of radio, Jack Benny remained in firm control of the many programs that bore his name. Although not credited as such, he was both director and head writer of all of his series. This did not mean that he was a tyrant of his productions, rather he was very generous in valuing both his writers and his cast, most of whom were with him until the end of his radio career. This generosity extended to allowing cast members and guest stars to have the best lines; Jack often said that it didn't matter who got the laughs, as long as the show was funny.
This firm control even extended to the commercial breaks on his programs. On The Lucky Strike Program, for example, Jack would allow the advertisers to write the opening and closing spots, but insisted that his own writers be the ones to write the middle commercial, leading to many of the program's best segments.
Besides appearing in his own series, Jack Benny was a much sought-after guest on other radio shows. He made many appearances on such popular anthology programs as The Screen Guild Theater, Lux Radio Theater, and Suspense, and even recreated his 'The Horn Blows At Midnight' (a better story than he ever let on) on Ford Theater.
Some of Jack's most notorious appearances were in name only, on The Fred Allen Show. Jack Benny and Fred Allen had a feud that ran for almost two decades, each star mercilessly taunting the other on the air. In reality, this was for comedic purposes only; off-air Benny and Allen were friends with the utmost mutual respect.
The 'bitter enemies' square off, restrained by each other's wife. L to R: Portland Hoffa, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Mary Livingstone
In his private life, Jack Benny could not have been any more the opposite of his on-air persona. He was a generous, thoughtful man who had a deep concern for the social issues of the day, and worked tirelessly to promote tolerance and understanding.
Benny had an opportunity to make a statement on tolerance in every one of his broadcasts, through the show's handling of the character of Rochester. On a 1948 broadcast, the show re-used a script from 1941, a common practice on radio at the time. What the producers of the show failed to take into account was how much racial attitudes had changed during the intervening war years. When the program aired, and several pre-war ethnic stereotypes were heard on his show, Benny was deeply embarrassed and instructed his writers that never again would racial jokes or references be tolerated on his program.
Like many of his contemporary stars, Jack Benny would often step outside his character to deliver a positive message of peace, tolerance, and civic responsibility. In an era that saw America reshaped into a leader on the world stage, spiritually as well as economically, these messages were instrumental in the struggle against the fascism and intolerance that still simmered throughout the post-WWII world. One example of these messages promoting racial harmony, still relevant today, can be heard as a bonus feature with the 'Guests: Bacall & Bogart' Jack Benny episode.
Jack Benny first heard the siren song of television on New Years Day of 1949, when he appeared in the inaugural broadcast of Los Angeles CBS television station KTTV. On October 28th, 1950, The Jack Benny Show became a television show as well as a radio program, and was a staple of Sunday evening's television line-up for the next fifteen years. While long-time cast members of his radio show would make guest appearances, the only two that became regulars on the television show were announcer Don Wilson and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson.
The Jack Benny Show continued its radio production until May 22nd, 1955, and would remain on CBS from 1956 to 1958 as 'The Best Of Benny', repeats of shows that originally aired in the early 1950s. Although his television show ceased production in 1965, when he grew tired of the ratings race, Jack Benny continued to perform regularly in television specials until his death in 1974.
To visit a Jack Benny page on The Archive with 143 episodes available, click here.
Digitally restored photo of Jack Benny at the microphone courtesy of Doctor Macro. The full-sized (1109x1431) original and larger versions of the cast and Benny/Allen photos can be found behind the ZIP link on this page.